Every Christian believes that he became one by a gracious act of God, that God made him a believer, gave him his faith, even as we read, Philippians 1:29: “Unto you it is given in the behalf of Christ, not only to believe on Him, but also to suffer for His sake.” No Christian approaches God as did the Pharisee in the parable with the boast: “God, I thank Thee, that I am not as other men are” (Luke 18:11), as though in him there were something to recommend him to God’s favor, but every Christian prays with the publican: “God be merciful unto me a sinner” (Luke 18:13). Here, if anywhere, there is surely unanimity among all Christians, in their heart of hearts confessing: “I, a sinner, saved by grace.” And yet in the field of theological disputation there has occurred a very wide divergence of opinion on this very point, and controversies have raged and still rage even within the “Lutheran” Church on this vital and fundamental doctrine of conversion. Of this, however, we may be sure, that, regardless of what monstrous notions of human cooperation in coming to Christ may be set down upon paper by blind leaders of the blind, even these men, if indeed they still are Christians at heart, forget all that when they come to God in prayer, and confess: “All that I was, my sin, my guilt, my death, was all mine own; all that I am I owe to Thee, my gracious God, alone.”
What, then, is conversion? Conversion is the bestowal of faith. God gives us faith, and thereby converts us. In Acts 11:21 we read: “A great number believed and turned unto the Lord,” that is to say (as indicated by the construction of the verbs in the original Greek), “in coming to faith they were converted unto the Lord;” their conversion consisted in the kindling of faith in their hearts through the preaching of the Gospel. And no man can by his own reason or strength, by anything whatever in himself, come to faith in Christ: “I believe that I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ, my Lord, or come to Him.”
The efficient cause of conversion, the Bestower of faith, is God alone. Man does not accomplish, but undergoes conversion. The Scripture proof for the truth that God alone by His almighty grace, without any cooperation whatever on the part of the man being converted, effects or accomplishes conversion is so abundant and so clear that our purpose will best be served by a simple listing of the main passages without comment, and without any further attempt at classification than merely to distinguish the proofs for the negative (that man can not and does not accomplish his own conversion or assist in it) and the proofs for the positive fact that God’s grace alone works conversion in us:
John 6:44: “No man can come to Me, except the Father which hath sent Me draw him.”
1 Cor. 2:14: “The natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God: for they are foolishness unto him: neither can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned.”
Phil. 1:29: “For unto you it is given ... to believe on Him.”
Eph. 1:19, 20: “Who believe according to the working of His mighty power, which He wrought in Christ when He raised Him from the dead.”
Col. 2:12: “Ye are risen with Him through the faith of the operation of God” (i.e., “through the faith which God wrought” — compare preceding passage), “who hath raised Him from the dead.”
2 Cor. 4:6: “For God, who commanded the light to shine out of darkness, hath shined in our hearts, to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.”
Thus we see that the working of faith in man’s heart, dead as it is to God by nature (Eph. 2:1, 5), is as mighty a work of God as the raising of Christ from the dead, that the creation of the light of faith in man’s sin-darkened heart (1 Cor. 2:14) is as mighty a work of God as His commanding the light to shine out of darkness on the first day of creation.
The means through which God effects conversion is the Gospel, the Word of reconciliation, the good news of the grace of God in Christ Jesus, which produces faith in the forgiveness of sins that it proclaims. The Law cannot convert, for by the Law is the knowledge of sin (Rom. 3:20), not of grace and forgiveness. Yet without the preparatory work of the Law, breaking up the fallow ground of the hard and sinful heart (Jer. 4:3), the life-giving fructifying seed of the Gospel will never find lodgment there. For, as our Savior tells us (Matt. 9:12): “They that be whole need not a physician, but they that are sick.” Without the knowledge of sin there is no knowledge of the Savior. The knowledge of sin is produced by the preaching of the revealed Law of God from Holy Scripture, and is made effectual in the heart by the Holy Spirit through the terrors of conscience and despair of one’s own righteousness unto contrition, as a divine act upon the sinner preparatory to conversion. Or at times God undertakes through outward events, adversity (Luke 15:14–18; Acts 16: 26ff; Psalm 119:71) or even prosperity and outward blessing (Rom. 2:4; Luke 5:8), to produce the broken heart into which He will pour the consolation of the Gospel. But in any event it is not the Law but the Gospel which produces faith. For this many Scripture proofs can be offered, of which we list the following:
Rom. 10:17: “Faith cometh by hearing, and hearing by the Word of Christ” (this being the preferred reading of the manuscripts; the reading of the received text, “Word of God,” being less specific, though in this context pointing also to the Gospel).
John 5:39: “Search the Scriptures; for in them ye think ye have eternal life: and they are they which testify of Me” (Christ).
John 17:20: “Neither pray I for these alone, but for them also which shall believe on Me through their Word” (through the Apostolic preaching of the Gospel).
The inner motions of the heart which go to make up conversion are: a), the terrors of conscience which arise from the knowledge of sin engendered by the Law (Acts 16:29, 30, and other passages referred to in the preceding paragraph in connection with the preparatory work of the Law); and b). the trust of the heart in the gracious promise of forgiveness extended to man in the Gospel (Acts 16:31, and other passages referred to in the preceding paragraph in connection with the production of faith by the Gospel). Not until the despair induced by the Law has been overcome by faith in the Gospel has conversion taken place; but in the very moment in which Gospel comfort takes the place of the terrors of conscience God has accomplished conversion in the heart.
Conversion therefore, that is, the creation of faith in the grace of God, takes place in that moment in which the Holy Ghost, after rousing the terrors of conscience, kindles a spark of faith in the heart of the sinner, or awakens a desire for the grace of God in Christ. The preparation for conversion may extend over a longer or shorter period of time, but not so conversion itself; it always takes place instantaneously. There is no intermediate state between the state of sin and the state of grace, between spiritual death and spiritual life, between being in an unconverted state and being converted. Scripture rules out any such intermediate state by recognizing only two classes of men, in such passages, for instance, as John 3:6, 18, 36, and Mark 16:16. Since according to Scripture no such intermediate state exists, all possibility of man contributing something of his own toward the blessed result is completely ruled out. The moment there is the least spark of spiritual life, of longing for grace, of turning toward God, in a man’s heart, God has already converted him, and that by grace alone, without any cooperation on man’s part.
Despite the fact, however, that in every case converting grace works with all the power of divine omnipotence (see Eph. 1:19; Col. 2:12; 2 Cor. 4:6, above, in positive Scripture proof for the fact that God’s grace alone works conversion in us), nevertheless man can still prevent his conversion. In Matt. 23:37 our Lord says, with tears, of the lost inhabitants of Jerusalem whom He willed to save: “I would . . . but ye would not.” In Acts 7:51 St. Stephen addresses the hardened foes of the Gospel: “Ye do always resist the Holy Ghost.”
Of the mysterious fact that God’s omnipotence is in this instance resistible, Luther says about all that may be said in accordance with Scripture in his familiar axiom: God operating through the means of His Word can be resisted (Matt. 11: 28; 23:37; compare also Luke 14:18–20), but God working in His unveiled majesty (Matt. 25:32, 33) is irresistible. When Christ shall summon all nations before Him when He comes in His glory at the last day and shall separate them unto their eternal destinies none shall say: “I pray thee, have me excused,” nor shall any run away and hide. We must conclude, then, that God’s converting grace is indeed omnipotent, but still not irresistible. If any should object that this statement is illogical, we shall merely reply that a Christian’s standard of judgment with regard to God and divine tilings is not human logic but Holy Scripture — and God forbid that we ever permit our thoughts and speculations to go beyond the Word of our God!
The “daily repentance,” which is such a prominent part of our Christian life of sanctification, as expounded in Luther’s Small Catechism (last two questions on Baptism, dealing with its significance) is sometimes, not incorrectly, spoken of as a continuous conversion. It is so spoken of, for instance, in Matt. 18:3. But Scripture sharply differentiates between conversion in this sense and the conversion by which an unbeliever is brought to faith.
But also in the usual sense of conversion, as the transition from unbelief to faith, the possibility of a re-conversion, a repeated conversion, is clearly taught in Scripture. On the one hand, Scripture clearly teaches that a true believer may fall from grace and lose his faith. Luke 8:13 speaks of those “which for a while believe.” 1 Tim. 1:19, 20 speaks of Hymenaeus and Philetus who “concerning faith have made shipwreck.” In well known narratives we are told how David in the Old Testament and Peter in the New Testament fell away from faith, and were later restored. On the other hand, Scripture explicitly teaches that those who have fallen away from faith may be reconverted. Ezek. 18:31, 32 and 33:11 call upon the wicked who at one time have been God’s children to return to the Lord in repentance. David (2 Samuel 12:13; Psalm 51), Manasseh (2 Chron. 33:1 ff.), Peter (Luke 22:61, 62; especially verse 32), underwent a second conversion.
A lengthy chapter could here be added on the synonyms of conversion, but we shall be contented with merely listing them, with a brief reference to the significance of each, and a Scripture text in which it is used. Regeneration speaks of conversion as a second birth more blest, in which those who by nature were children of Adam have been reborn unto a lively faith as children of God. See 1 John 5:1 and John 1: 12, 13. Quickening or spiritual resurrection speaks of the conversion of those who by nature were spiritually dead (“dead in trespasses and sins,” Eph. 2:1) to the spiritual life of faith. See Col. 2:12; Eph. 1:19, 20; 2:5–8. Illumination speaks of conversion as the kindling of the spiritual light of faith in the hearts of those who by nature were spiritually blind, that walked in darkness and dwelt in the land of the shadow of death (1 Cor. 2:14; Is. 9:2). See Eph. 5:8; Acts 26:18; 1 Peter 2:9. Calling speaks of conversion as that return to God which is effected by the call of the Gospel, kindling faith in the heart. See Rom. 8:30; 1 Cor. 1:26; 2 Tim. 1:9; and again, 1 Peter 2:9. Repentance, especially when used not of the daily repentance, but of that contrition and faith whereby the lost and condemned sinner is first brought into communion with God, is also a synonym of conversion. See Luke 13:3,5; 15:7.
All that has so far been said in these nine chapters has been leading up to the central article of the Christian faith, which shall be treated, God willing, in our next chapter: “Justification, Objective and Subjective.”